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June 9, 2020, 3:17 p.m. EDT

‘I recognize the privilege inherent in keeping my life tidily compartmentalized:’ How quarantine made me reevaluate my life

‘My inability to navigate context collapse is, in a way, really a reflection of my own privilege. I’ve been lucky to have the space to be different things to different people’

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By Aram Sinnreich


Aram Sinnreich
Aram Sinnreich: ‘Have you ever had the experience of posting something on social media related one aspect of your life, only to have it spill over into another?’

Usually, I love the summer.

As a college professor and department chair, normally I’m done teaching by June, and my time is taken up by scholarly and administrative duties: Doing research, advising doctoral students, staffing classes for the fall. As a professional musician, I also typically take advantage of the summer to do things I can’t make as much time for when school is in session: Playing at festivals, getting into the recording studio, and writing new material. And, as a father of two school-aged children, the best part of my summer usually involves doing stuff with them: Swimming, traveling, playing video games.

Those of us who study social media professionally noticed a while back that these kinds of uncomfortable spillovers are hard to avoid on apps like Facebook. We even have a name for it: ‘context collapse.’

Aram Sinnreich

This summer is different. It’s not that I’m missing out on most of my favorite activities; it’s just that, thanks to COVID-19, they’re all mashed up together. It’s kind of like being on Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -1.74% , all day, every day. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Have you ever had the experience of posting something on social media related one aspect of your life, only to have it spill over into another? Has your boss ever “liked” a risqué photo of you and your friends out at a nightclub? Have your parents ever posted baby pictures of you that you wish had stayed in a dusty photo album on their shelves? Have you ever gotten into a political argument with an old high school acquaintance you have little in common with? Of course you have. Stuff like that happens to everyone.

Those of us who study social media professionally noticed a while back that these kinds of uncomfortable spillovers are hard to avoid on apps like Facebook. We even have a name for it: “context collapse.”

In real life, we go to different places to do different things, and to be different people. When I’m on campus, I’m Professor Sinnreich. When I’m on a festival stage, I’m The Bass Player. And when I’m doing a cannonball into a swimming pool, I’m just plain Dad. But on Facebook, it’s hard to be different people, because everyone’s in the same place. Our different networks get all mixed up together, which means our different identities do, too. So we have to juggle, and come up with ways to be all things to all people, all the time. It’s exhausting.

That’s one of many reasons I quit Facebook a few years ago; their willing role in amplifying racial hatred and social discord was another.

I’m kind of half-assing everything right now, and that’s because of context collapse. I can’t focus entirely on my doctoral students’ challenges with their dissertations when my kids need help logging in to their own classes.

Aram Sinnreich

(Facebook says,” We do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion, and in some cases, may promote real-world violence.” However critics of the social media-site have said it’s become virtually impossible to police. Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Fox News. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”)

But now I’m getting uncomfortable flashbacks to my social-media days, because context collapse has come to my real life.

Like much of the world, I’ve spent the past three months largely cooped up in my own home with my family, self-isolating to help stop the spread of COVID-19. This has meant shifting all my professional obligations to remote work. I taught the second half of Spring semester entirely online, and so did my wife, who teaches in an after-school music program. My kids, of course, have been home as well, taking their classes online, often at the same time as my wife and I were teaching. I’ve also served on hiring committees and advisory councils, participated in research conferences and mentor sessions, and even helped to launch a new masters program, all via Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +1.01%  or Google Hangouts /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +1.85%  or Skype /zigman2/quotes/207732364/composite MSFT +0.76% , from the relative safety and security of my own home.

I’ve also been busy in my creative life. My wife and I have done a series of concerts, recording 30 “quarantunes” from our home studio and sharing them via Instagram and YouTube /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +1.94%  (yes, I’m aware that Facebook owns Instagram — it’s my wife’s account, not mine). We’ve played livestreamed sets in several online music festivals. And I’ve even collaborated on recordings with friends as far away as Seoul, and as close as down the street. I’ve also been working on a novel collaboratively with my sister, a historian and author who lives about three thousand miles away.

I have to accomplish all of these different tasks, be all these different people, at the same time, in the same place. I was no good at it on Facebook, and, as it turns out, I’m no good at it in real life, either.

Aram Sinnreich

Most importantly, I’ve gotten to spend quality time with my kids. We’ve gone on hikes in local nature preserves (wearing masks and gloves). We’ve done a lot of cooking and baking together. We’ve played a lot of Animal Crossing. Technically, I’m even on vacation this week. I haven’t checked email, logged into Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +0.19% , or read the news, in five whole days — probably a record for me.

But to be honest, I’m kind of half-assing everything right now, and that’s because of context collapse. I can’t focus entirely on my doctoral students’ challenges with their dissertations when my kids need help logging in to their own classes. I can’t practice my bass when I’m getting pulled into a last-minute emergency Zoom meeting. I can’t adequately review a journal article when the garden is desperately in need of weeding. And — I’ve learned the hard way — I can’t tell my kids I’m “taking a week off from work” and then sit down at my laptop and hammer out a chapter of my novel. I have to accomplish all of these different tasks, be all these different people, at the same time, in the same place. I was no good at it on Facebook, and, as it turns out, I’m no good at it in real life, either.

Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, these are small problems. Lucky problems. My brother survived COVID-19 unscathed, and the rest of my family has remained thankfully uninfected. I have the relative job security of a tenured professorship at a time when tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs. And I live in a happily integrated multi-ethnic neighborhood and household at a time when our nation is being torn apart by racist violence and racial strife. And, as my wife said when I explained the premise of this article to her, “Welcome to the challenge of being a mom.”

I have to accomplish all of these different tasks, be all these different people, at the same time, in the same place. I was no good at it on Facebook, and, as it turns out, I’m no good at it in real life, either.

Aram Sinnreich

So I guess my inability to navigate context collapse is, in a way, really a reflection of my own privilege. I’ve been lucky to have the space to be different things to different people. Lucky to have a private office on a beautiful college campus. Lucky to have a job that affords me the time and freedom to play at festivals. Lucky to have a home with room for a music studio and a garden. Lucky to have the freedom to quit Facebook without serious repercussions for my social or professional life.

In a way, then, COVID-19 is a blessing as well as a curse. By collapsing my context and taking away the infrastructure that allowed me to pursue the different aspects of my life in parallel, it’s revealed to me how much of my personal success and happiness has depended on that infrastructure, how rare it is, and how ill equipped I am to live my life without it. It’s a rude awakening, but a necessary one — for me, and, I think, for all of us.

We still don’t know whether or when things will ever return to “normal.” Whether we’ll develop a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19. Whether all the lost jobs will return, whether music festivals will start up again, whether theaters and restaurants and college campuses will reopen and resume business as usual. But I know one thing for sure: I won’t be going back to the way I was before the pandemic. Now that I recognize the privilege inherent in keeping my life tidily compartmentalized, I don’t want anything to do with it. Better to live an integrated, haphazard life as a half-ass than to live luxuriously in pieces as a total ass.

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